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Eclectic, Engaging Food at Alma in Minneapolis

28 Feb

It isn’t everyday you get engaged. And it isn’t everyday you eat a meal like the one you can enjoy at Alma. Yep, Trusty and I are enfianced! During an incredible meal at Alma he asked the big question. Because of the wonderful occasion and because of the delicious food it was a truly memorable meal.

In one word: Wow.

Food: The food was fantastic. Alma’s menu changes every 6-8 weeks, to offer new dishes that flavorful seasonal ingredients. They specialize in three course tasting menus for $45 per person–not bad at all for a fine dining experience.

I started with a warm Celery Root Souffle ($14 a la carte). De-lic-ious! Great texture and flavors. I’ve never had anything like it.

My second course was out-of-this-world amazing–lobster gnocchi ($17 for a la carte). It was fantastically rich and sweet, with giant pieces of lobster and a delicious orange truffle butter sauce. If we can get Alma to cater our wedding (fingers crossed), this will be on the menu!

So buttery and sweet...

My third course was Pan Seared Scallops with caramelized onions and beets ($28 a la carte). The scallops were seared to perfection–tender and sweet and soft. MMMMMMMmmmmmmmm.

My Trusty Sidekick started with a Mozerella and Beet salad with fresh basil and a light balsamic glaze. It tasted as fresh as summer.

For his second course, he tried Glazed Beef Short Rib ravioli with fragrant and delicious fried sage leaves ($25 a la carte).

His third course was the 12 Hour Beef and Parsnips, a slow-cooked pot roast over parsnips and balsamic onions, with a carrot butter sauce ($28 a la carte). Suffice to say we were both stuffed after our third plate…


…but of course the evening called for dessert! So, we split a chocolate tarte ($8) with chocolate sorbet and yummy, homemade potato chips. It was an amazing combination of sweet and salty.


What a sweet end to the meal.

Drink: As soon as our waitress figured out Trusty had just proposed, the matre d’ graciously sent over two glasses of champagne during dinner, and two glasses of Pacific Rim Framboise, NV, Washington during dessert. I usually don’t like Framboise–it can be cloyingly sweet–but this vintage (if that is the appropriate term) was delicious. I also enjoyed a delicious glass of rosehip herbal tea called “Bliss” at the end of the meal.

Service: Our waitress was fantastic, and the entire staff was so warm and welcoming. Alma’s hospitality was memorable–we’ll be back soon to enjoy their service again.

Scene: Because we went during an epic snowstorm the restaurant was literally empty! Trusty had called ahead to ask if we could be seated in a back, quiet corner of the restaurant, and when we arrived the Maitre d’ somewhat comically led us through Alma’s front room, which was empty, through their back room, which was also empty, and seated us at the very back corner table. When our waitress came over she informed us that the chefs were cooking for us. What an incredible evening. 

The interior of Alma.

The interior of Alma.

Cost: Our meal came to a little under $150 with tax and tip.

If you like, try: Heartland in St. Paul, Naha in Chicago

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Ze Best Crock of French Onion Soup at Salut

13 Aug

My Happy Place is in this crock.

Location: 5034 France Avenue South, Edina MN

In one word: Gruyère

Food: I met my friend Patricia for lunch at Salut at 50th and France. If you don’t have a chef in your life who is generous enough to spend all day making an onion/wine/beef-stock reduction (thanks, Jenna!), the next best crock of french onion soup is waiting for you there. It has a rich, flavorful broth, and is smothered in thick, melty gruyère cheese floating on yummy slices of baguette. For $8.95, ze price is a little steep, but, then again, can you put a price on soup that takes 24 hours to make?

If you’re not an onion person, there are other reasons to check out Salut. They have a great oyster bar with different varieties of fresh oysters. And, their hand-cut Pomme-frites with béarnaise sauce were voted “Best Fries in the Twin Cities” by Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine.

Our lunch started with one of the best bread baskets around–Salut’s baguette with sweet and creamy house-churned butter. I’m not a butter person, but this butter is irresistible.
If you can, save some of your baguette to dunk into the delicious French onion soup. Mine arrived hot and bubbly, overflowing with gruyère cheese.

Mesmerizing, isn't it?

Try your best to pace yourself. I like to get through the layer of gruyère cheese on one side of the crock,  enjoy some of the rich broth and carmelized onions, then tackle the other side.

As a little girl I made a list of all the things I wanted in a husband, and this soup meets every item on that list: hot, comforting, rich and cheesy (after all, I do love puns). French onion soup, where have you been all my life?

So rich, filling, and flavorful, it’s all you need for a fantastic lunch.

Drink: I had iced tea. Very lemony and cold, it was the perfect refreshing beverage to go with my soup.

Service: Our service was friendly and fast.

Scene: We seemed to be surrounded by other ladies (and some gentlemen) enjoying a leisurely afternoon of shopping at 50th and France.

Salut’s decor gives the restaurant a feeling of a modern “Americanized” French brasserie. Some might find the red walls, black and white checked table-cloths, and giant vintage French posters a bit gimmicky, but I like the atmosphere it creates.

If the weather is nice, ask to sit outside on Salut’s patio–great food and great people watching.

Dress: Well, this is Edina, so feel free to wear any or all designer labels you own, and/or your giant diamond ring(s). Just kidding. But really, you want to clean up at least a little.

Cost: I had a fun lunch with a great friend for only $12. Ooo la la!

If you like, try: Meritage in St. Paul, Brasserie Jo in Chicago, Cafe du Soleil in NYC

Contemporary Mexican Cuisine at Masa in Minneapolis

11 Aug

If you’re looking for an inexpensive lunch with lots of variety, check out Masa and their 3 items for $10 combo lunch deal.

Location: 1070 Nicollet Avenue Target Plaza, Minneapolis

In one word: Variety

Food: Our group of five started with two appetizers: Guacamole ($8.75) and Ceviche of the day, which was Marlin ($8.75):

I liked that the guacamole came with raw veggies, not just chips, but I wasn’t a fan of the texture. It’s prepared mashed-style, which just isn’t my jam. Also, we noticed it didn’t have a strong avocado flavor, and the guac looked like there was olive oil mixed into it. We wondered if perhaps the chef added olive oil to try to compensate for under-ripe avocados?

The ceviche was fantastic. Good flavor, good subtle heat. But, as you can see, even for an appetizer-sized portion, we didn’t get a whole lot. This was the only dish where we felt like we didn’t get a great value.

Way too small. (That's what she said.)

The best pre-meal nibbler that we had were the complementary chips and two salsas that were brought for the table. The salsas had great flavor and the chips were freshly made and extra crispy. I especially liked the Salsa Verde. It was really fresh with great cilantro flavor.

We ordered a variety of entrees and ended up doing a bit of pass the plate sharing. I went with the Camarones al Mojo de Ajo ($15). Wow, was it good. The dish had a generous portion of sautéed Florida gulf shrimp which were toasted in garlic, chipotle in adobo and lime for huge smokey, tart flavor. On the side was really tender cilantro rice–the perfect compliment–and beautifully sliced avocado, which, contrary to our guac, was perfectly ripe. Our table agreed that this is definitely a dish you shouldn’t pass up when you come to Masa.

Another group favorite was Chilaquiles Rojos con Chorizo ($12)–Two fried eggs you can get prepared way served with chips that have been simmered in Guajillo salsa, then topped with onion, queso fresco and chorizo picante. The rich creaminess of the egg yolk was really delicious with the salty chips. If I had one complaint about this dish it was that the texture was too uniform. The delicate softness of the eggs and yolk would have been even better if they could be sopped up with something a bit crustier–the chips were a little too mushy for me.

Two of my fellow diners took advantage of Masa’s fantastic 3 for $10 deal–you can choose any three items on their 3 for 10 menu of the day and they arrive together on a plate–it’s a great way to cover more ground on the menu, get more variety in your meal, and still have a light lunch. Here’s a picture of one combo–Chicken Tortilla soup, Fish tacos, and Mango and Jicama salad:

And here’s combo number two: Mango and Jicama salad, a Grilled Chicken Sandwich, and a Chicken Tortilla soup.

The group was very impressed with the components of the two combo dishes–the Chicken Tortilla Soup in particular was a big hit. It has lots of cilantro and a really rich broth. The Mango Jicama salad was also a table favorite. We liked the crunchiness of it, and with a little lime squeezed on top it was the perfectly sweet-tart and refreshing salad.

Finally, the smartest diner at our table ordered dessert for lunch: Crepes de Cajeta ($6.50). I heard they were delicious (they disappeared before I had the chance to try a bite!). When I’m at Masa next I’ll definitely be trying these buttered crepes slathered and drizzled in caramel made from goat’s milk and then finished with candied pecans.

Drink: Be sure to try Masa’s Té de Jamaica–Hibiscus Iced Tea ($2.25)–it’s cool and refreshing and not too sugary.

Service: I wasn’t a big fan of Masa’s service. When we needed someone, our waitress was nowhere to be seen. Then, while we were still enjoying our meals, a large aggressive team of servers came and tried to take all the plates from our table. Our water glasses were never refilled once.

Scene: The dining room was packed the lunch-hour rush, so I was glad we had 12:30 reservations (you can reserve a table through Open Table). It was hard to spot a group of “civilians” eating–it was clear that nearly everyone in the dining room was a business professional out for lunch–and we saw a ton of Target cards. Not surprising, since their corporate headquarters are right around the corner from Masa.

This larger than life Seniora welcomes diners as they enter Masa's lobby.

Dress:

During the week you’re likely to be surrounded by business casual or business professional wear, so don’t dress like a complete slob unless you want to stand out.


Cost: You can get away with a $13 tab here if you go with Masa’s 3 for $10 combo option. For a larger lunch your tab will be between $17-22.

If you like, try: Frontera Grill in Chicago

A Smorgasbord of Food at Pad Thai Cafe in St. Paul

2 Aug

It’s may seem strange to use the word smorgasbord for thai food, but there’s no other way to describe the variety of dishes my family and I had at Pad Thai Cafe last night.

Location: 1659 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota

In one word: Smorgasbord

Food: PT’s menu is huge, offering over 60 different Thai dishes. We decided to share a variety of things so we could sample something from each section (curry, noodles, seafood, etc.).

We started the meal with three appetizers–an order of fresh spring Rolls with shrimp and pork ($4.75), an order of vegetarian fresh spring rolls ($4.25), and an order of vegetarian deep-fried egg rolls ($4.00). I really enjoyed the flavors of the fresh spring rolls–there was a bit of basil in each bite, which I love. And the dipping sauce was wonderful–sweet and salty with a hint of fish sauce and finished with crushed peanuts so you get a big of nutty crunch. Each order comes with 4 pieces, so they’re good appetizers to order if you’re sharing with a group.

We were way too ambitious in ordering our shared entrees–not a terrible thing, since everyone ended up enjoying leftovers for lunch the next day. We started off with Green Papaya Salad ($5.50), an authentic Thai dish with shredded papaya, tomatoes, lots of fresh lime juice, and peanuts:

love papaya salad--very refreshing

If you haven’t tried Papaya Salad before, it’s like a really fresh coleslaw without any mayonnaise. The texture comes from the fruit–Green Papaya isn’t at all like what you might expect if you’re imagining something like a mango. It is actually slightly tart and very crunchy. The sauce is very rich–in addition to lime juice, traditionally it includes some shrimp paste, fish sauce, and honey, so the flavor is tart, slightly sweet, and salty.

Gang khiao wan (vegetable green curry) ($8.50) is a must-order if you ask me. There’s nothing like bamboo shoots, green beans, thai eggplant, and sweet basil and lime leaves that have simmered in rich, creamy sauce made of coconut milk and green chili paste.

Green curry: sweet with a bit of heat.The vegetable in the front that's cut into a half moon shape is Thai Eggplant.

PT uses Thai Eggplant in their green curry, which is the authentic way to prepare the dish, rather than using traditional purple eggplant that more Americans are familiar with. As a result, the flavor of the curry sauce was excellent. However, there weren’t as many vegetables as I would like. It was as though the chef put in the same amount of veggies that would be in the dish if we had ordered chicken or shrimp green curry and because we had no protein the sauce to veggies ratio was off.

Spicy eggplant ($10.95) with sautéed basil leaves and green and red peppers was a good complement to our sweet green curry:
The texture of the soft eggplant with the sautéed, but still crispy peppers was wonderful. I love the taste of thai eggplant–it’s a bit peppery, sort of like the pepperiness that arugula has. We ordered the dish as “medium” spiciness and next time I would ask for more heat–it wasn’t very spicy for my taste.

Thai Eggplants are small and green, and often have a white marking on them.

The most unusual dish we tried was Sam Rodt ($26.95), a large seafood medley with three sauces that is meant to be shared between two people (we split it among four, and still the giant portion size made for leftovers):

A seafood celebration.

It was really fun to try this dish. If you’re a seafood lover, you’ll get your seafood fix here. The dish includes shrimp, large diver scallops, and generous chunks of salmon, which I thought was especially delicious with the slightly sweet sauce.

Finally, we had to try PT’s Pad Thai with shrimp ($12.95), which it boasts as being the best in the Twin Cities:
The pad thai was very, very good. But I have to say that the sweetness of the gravy was a little too sweet for me–I prefer a bit of tanginess. We squirted an extra slice of lemon over the noodles, which cut the sweetness. My other complaint is that there wasn’t much shrimp.

Drink: We ordered sodas ($1.95) and a hot tea ($1.25). PT did have some good beers listed on their menu, for those who might be interested.

Service: Our waitress, Oula, was very friendly and attentive, as were the bus boys who kept our sodas refreshed and our water glasses full.

Scene: This is a great restaurant to go to with your family or a big group of friends. The restaurant is full of big, wide booths that can accommodate larger parties, which we really appreciated. It’s located near Macalester College, so you’ll see lots of college students and 20-somethings. The decor is simple, but has some Thai flair, including a fantastic painted mural on one side of the restaurant that wowed us all.

Dress: Jeans and a t-shirt are fine. Throw on some jewelry or a nice pair of shoes if you feel like dressing up.

Cost: My wonderful Mom treated us all to dinner. Thanks, Mum! Total, the tab with tax and tip was $106, which would have been about $27 if we split the bill four ways.

If you like, try: Roat Osha in Minneapolis, Singha Thai in Chicago, Sura Thai in NYC

Cupcake Mania at Cocoa and Fig Bakery in Minneapolis

30 Jul

I can’t think of anything that combines my love of food and fashion better than cupcakes. (Maybe aprons, I suppose. But aprons are not little edible presents–cupcakes are.)

Cupcakes are a true “food fashion” trend. Dressed up, dressed down, they are one of the most versatile desserts. Perfect for a mid-morning coffee break or afternoon tea, now they are beginning to replace the traditional three-tier cake at wedding receptions. All across the country, specialty cupcake bakeries are popping up everywhere. What’s behind the spread of cupcake mania? My guess is that it’s because cupcakes are fun. You can indulge, satisfy your sweet tooth, and not feel guilty. When it comes to ingredients, cupcakes are a great way to experiment with gourmet flavor combinations. And decoration-wise they can go fancy, casual, or whimsical.  Really, the creative possibilities are endless, making cupcakes suitable for so many occasions.

Let’s be honest though, no occasion was necessary this afternoon to try Cocoa and Fig, the new cupcake-dedicated bakery in downtown Minneapolis.

In one word: Indulgent

Location: 651 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (Gaviidae Common, Skyway Level–Saks Wing)

Food: Cocoa and Fig has lots of delicious cupcake varieties, plus other fun confection offerings like tartlets, French macarons, sugar cookies, and my favorite–cake lollipops–an adorable, teeny-meeny cupcake on a stick.

Cocoa and Fig's dessert case

Like most cupcake bakeries, Cocoa and Fig has many unusual, mouth-watering flavors. Some offerings the day I visited included Irish Car Bomb, Black Velvet (with black sprinkles), Banana with Cream Cheese frosting, Carrot Cake, Pumpkin spice cupcake with cinnamon frosting, Salted Caramel and more.

I tried a Peanut Butter Parfait cupcake–a chocolate cake with a big dollop of peanut butter frosting underneath a shell of hardened chocolate syrup and salted peanuts. (I’m such a sucker for salty/sweet combinations).

The effect of the frosting underneath the chocolate shell was like eating a chocolate dipped cone at Dairy Queen with peanuts sprinkled on top. The frosting is truly heavenly–silky and creamy, light as whipped butter. According to an interview with City Pages, Cocoa and Fig’s frosting is top-notch because they use an Italian meringue buttercream, rather than the American-style buttercream that most cupcakes are frosted with, meaning that in Cocoa and Fig’s kitchen the sugar for the cupcake frosting is cooked so it fully dissolves and then is added to whipped egg whites and butter. I think I prefer this method. The frosting is absolutely mouth-watering, with a lovely whipped feeling on your tongue. And speaking of which, because the sugar is dissolved you don’t get that gritty, sugary feeling on your tongue and teeth.

Cocoa and Fig's cupcakes are magic. In fact they perform a great disappearing trick. (so cheesy, but I just couldn't resist)

Underneath the frosting is an extremely moist chocolate cake with an oozy, gooey injection of peanut butter at its center. Yes please. It’s a bit on the small side for gourmet cupcakes (I’d say maybe half the size of Magnolia’s, if you’re familiar)–but the upside is that you actually have a chance to fit a bite of frosting and cake in your mouth at once–if you really open up your jaw.

Some may feel that $2.75 for a cupcake is a little steep, but I’d argue that if you’re looking for an indulgent treat, it’s hard to match this kind of taste for your buck.

Check out this funky rock candy wedding cake. And if you look to the left, you can see what the cake lollipops look like.

Drink: Cocoa and Fig offers plain black coffee and various bottled drinks, including a fridge full of Naked Juice. If you’re looking for something else (latte, teas, etc.) there’s a Caribou Coffee conveniently located kitty-corner in the Gaviidae mall.

Service: The counter staff is very friendly and answered all my questions. Not much else to report.

Scene: For a new retail space, the Cocoa and Fig location is well branded and very cute–there are Cocoa and Fig products lined up on shelves against the wall, and the counter space feels vaguely Martha Stewart-y and is clean and bright. There’s no where to sit, which is unfortunate. You have to shove your cupcake in your mouth, or plan to take it to go. If you decide to do the latter, it might be a good excuse to take home multiple cupcakes. If you decide to do the former, I will definitely not judge.

Dress: No dress code really to speak of–the store is more or less a to-go counter, so there’s not really a crowd to impress. I mostly saw business casual or business professional dressed folks coming from and going to work.

Cost: $2.75/cupcake is pretty good in my book. But I tend to look at the glass as half full, especially when I have a scrumptious cupcake in my stomach, half eaten.

If you like, try: Magnolia in NYC, Sugar Bliss in Chicago, Crumbs (across the country), Sweets Bakeshop in St. Paul, MN

Insanely Good Eggs Benedict and Brunch at Meritage

27 Jul

Whether you want to fuel up for a Saturday full of erranding, or you’re looking for a leisurely start to the weekend,  I recommend one of St. Paul’s best French restaurants, Meritage, for brunch.  I met my mom, two aunts, and uncle for brunch there this past week for an amazing meal. Here’s what we ate:

In one word: Rich

Location: 410 St. Peter Street, St. Paul, Minnesota

Food:It was one order of blueberry pancakes ($9) and for the rest of us, Eggs Benedicts all around ($11)–including one Eggs Florentine.

If you like your pancakes on the sweet side, try these. As though blueberry syrup isn’t enough, they’re coated in a generous dusting of powdered sugar. Very delish, but if you’re a pancake purist, and you prefer maple syrup to different toppings, you’re probably better off trying something else.

Mmmm, blueberry goodness.

If you do elect to try something else, I heartily recommend Meritage’s Eggs Benedict–regular, or Florentine.

Hollandaise sauce for the Hollandaise Hall of Fame.

The hollandaise sauce was knock-your-socks off good. I’m talking butter-tastic good. And the eggs were cooked very well–soft, with a rich, runny yolk–a great contrast to the crusty English muffin. A small salad of simple greens and vinagrette, plus a few pieces of seasonal fruit, cut the richness of the dish.

I loved the spinach in the Eggs Florentine--slightly "healthier" and just as tasty.

Drink: I really enjoyed my cappuccino ($4) while my mom and aunts got regular coffees and  treated themselves to Meritage’s Classic Bellini with peach nectar and prosecco ($8).


Service:
We were very happy with our service at Meritage. Our waiter was friendly and attentive–we always had a full glass of water and coffee cups were frequently refreshed.

Scene: We sat outside and had a fabulous time soaking up some sunshine while we enjoyed some good people watching. The old-school French music being played in the background will make you feel a little like you’re in a sidewalk cafe in Paris. The crowd was varied–couples, small groups of friends, one or two families with small children. I think this would be a great location for a first date. It’s casual, but special.

Dress: Jeans are perfect for brunch. Feel free to dress comfortably and casually. In fact, a couple next to us arrived at Meritage on their bikes in their bike shorts, and they fit right in.

Cost: My wonderful, generous uncle treated us all to brunch–thanks, Uncle Van! So I’m not 100% certain of the final tab. But, by my estimates it was about $25 per person after tax and tip. On my budget, it’s not something I could repeat every weekend, but without a doubt I’ll be back next time I have that kind of money to devote to brunch. After all, it’s the most important meal of the day!

If you like, try: Bistro Zinc in Chicago, Bon Vie in St. Paul